COLLINSVILLE, IL -- I try to keep an open mind when visiting a new racetrack for the first time. But, deep down in my mind, I figured Fairmount Park would be a little bit sleepy.
Paul and I went last Tuesday. My previous experience with midweek racing, up on the Chicago circuit, involved a sparsely populated apron at Hawthorne and an incoherent guy handing me his cell phone and asking me to convince his wife to come to the track. (I passed on that opportunity, and suggested he explain to his own wife the virtues of the racetrack.)
I wondered how many people even knew Fairmount existed at all. I didn't, when I lived in the area. I spent three years (2005-2008) in Saint Louis, not even twenty miles away. I had no idea I was that close to a racetrack then. I only learned that Fairmount existed a few years later, when I got more serious about racing and started seeing all those FP form lines in Hawthorne and Arlington past performances.
I also came in with a certain level of big-city bias. If weekday crowds to see Chicago racing are so sparse, how many people were going to turn up on a hot Tuesday afternoon to see racing that was generally a step down the class ladder from the Chicago circuit?
My experience at Horse Hooky blew those notions away.
There was so much energy at Fairmount on Tuesday. At a racetrack I expected to be sleepy, I got more optimism for the future of Illinois racing than I had found in a long time.
The parking lot was full of cars, and had a few charter buses as well. The apron was lively. There were horseplayers getting their punt on, friends gathering for an afternoon out, families enjoying one of the last few summer days before the kids went back to school. People stood along the paddock rail before the races, either doing physical handicapping or just enjoying the sight of a horse. The grandstand was full of people, and there were lines at the betting machines and at the concession window. The lines were long enough to make the track feel well-attended, but not so long that you felt like you were spending your day waiting in line.
It was almost as if the entire town of Collinsville had called in sick and gone to Fairmount for the afternoon.
But, what made it even better was the fact that I knew it could not be just that. It was not a Big Race Day. Fairmount has not had a Big Race Day since before Belmont moved all the stakes to Belmont Stakes weekend and made Big Race Days all the rage in Thoroughbred racing. Fairmount has not hosted a stakes of any sort since 2013.
Instead, the seven-race card was typical for a Tuesday at Fairmount. The feature was a maiden special weight with a purse of eight thousand dollars won by Seba's Dancer, a nervous Louisiana-bred son of Laptop Computer who got loose in the paddock and still had enough left after those antics to win the race by ten and a half lengths. Even without high-profile shippers, people still came out to the track -- and were happy to be there.
It did not feel energetic because we picked a specific, red-letter day to go. It felt vibrant in the way of any well-loved and appreciated local institution, a place that was both familiar and fun. Fairmount was alive because it was a part of so many people's lives.
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